One of the benefits of being a late starter (or re-starter) in the field of literary studies, is that I sometimes dip into standard works and pick up on items that made little sense to me on first reading. Take, for example, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which must have first come to my attention as an undergraduate student of anthropology, many years ago. I took it to bed with me the other evening and flicked through, landing on ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’, an item that leads to one of those chain reaction searches through Google until I land up with Jean Giono, who is a favourite of mine, and who wrote on the Dominici affair at the time it hit the news in 1952.
The brief version of what happened:
On August 5, 1952, a family of English campers – Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, Lady Ann, and their ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – were found murdered at the side of Route 96 near Lurs, in the Alpes-Haute Provence department. A few yards from the scene of the crime stood a farmhouse that belonged to a formidable old character, Gaston Dominici, aged 75. The man had his own peculiar grandeur, a mixture of illiteracy, severity, and violence. The case attracted much attention and risked pushing France (which was undergoing a bloodletting in Indochina) back through the years to the traumatic divisions of the Dreyfus affair.
Sir Jack, a well-known nutritionist, who classified vitamins in the way they are recognized today, and helped devise UK rationing in World War Two had been in the British Intelligence Service during the war.
In the attack both Drummond and his wife suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Their daughter Elizabeth’s head had been crushed by the butt of the rifle that had been used to shoot her parents. Two of Dominici’s sons accused their father of the triple murder; the accused in turn suspected one of the sons and a grandson. On November 17, 1954, a few days after the start of the rebellion in Algeria, the trial of Gaston Dominici began; it ended ten days later when he was sentenced to death. The Court of Assizes in Digne was crowded with European journalists, including Jean Giono. Paul Morand, Roland Barthes, and Orson Welles were all present or wrote about it. Many people had the immediate impression that everything was a fix-up. When the truth seemed close to emerging during the trial, the chief judge was quick to interrupt or divert attention.
Gaston Dominici, a farmer and shepherd born in 1877, had lived all his life, apart from his military service in the Chasseurs des Alpes, more among animals than among men. He was practically illiterate and did not understand the elegant French of the chief judge and the state attorney. He hesitated at their questions, confused the meanings of words, and these facts were falsely taken for symptoms of guilt. His lawyer seemed unable to organize a logical line of defense, but after the sentence even the minister of justice had doubts and ordered a useless supplementary investigation. It was necessary to safeguard against risks, however, and therefore the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1960 General de Gaulle granted his release, but not a pardon. Protesting his innocence to the end, Dominici died on April 4, 1965, in a hospice in Digne, after his farm had fallen prey to creditors. His modest grave is not far from the place of rest of the three Drummonds.
Speculation has since mounted about the real cause for the murders, and the possible explanations include (a) that since Drummond was an SOE operative during World War Two, the murder was a settling of scores from the period of the Nazi occupation; (b) that Drummond and his family was the victim of a Soviet KGB hit-squad; (c) that as a senior government adviser and research scientist, Drummond was either engaged in, or else was the victim of industrial espionage, and (d) the family was murdered in a random assault by a German-based criminal gang en route to rob a jewellery store in Marseilles. This last theory seems to me the most compelling for a number of reasons, and a full account appears here.
A BBC East Midlands documentary came to its own conclusions, but makes no mention of the German gang. If, as seemed likely at the time, Drummond did fall victim to a KGB hit-squad, and the French government then in power knew this, Dominici appears precisely in the light in which he presented himself: as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the state. Paris could not, in the middle of the Cold War and at the height of the Indochina crisis, admit that the Soviets could have assailed some foreign citizens in the very heart of France. But this seems a far less likely explanation than the one involving the criminal gang on their way to a job, who happen upon the family and think there might be additional spoils for the taking. Against the background of all this speculation stood a primitive shepherd who, as Jean Giono noted, seemed to have stepped out of one of Virgil’s bucolic odes.
Whatever the eventual resolution, if there is one, for now – and possibly forever – the Dominici case remains unresolved.
So as the year comes to an end we move inexorably towards a future that sees Great Britain isolated from Europe, estranged from the USA (who quite frankly never gave a damn anyway), reneging on promises to be the ‘greenest government ever’ as George Osborne, that most grotesque of Tory self-parodies – if he didn’t exist someone would have invented him – as the liberties of common people are eroded palpably and cynically by a government that is now setting out plans to shoot demonstrators, should the need arise, a plea already put forward by Jeremy Clarkson in respect of strikers. And as a sad afternote, rather than reprimanding their star boy racer (apparently Clarkson’s boyish frolics in motor cars are so remunerative that the BBC considers him an asset of greater importance to them than their own integrity) he was let off the hook completely, as he was, after all, ‘joking’ about shooting people in front of their families. Actually Clarkson and Osborne represent for me two examples of manhood that will do very nicely for today’s blog, two facets of the hideous tragedy of our culture at the start of the second decade of the new millennium.
But fear not. “Potentially the use of firearms” will be justified at demos, but only “as a last resort”. The use of firearms with live ammunition could be justified against arsonists when life is being endangered given the “immediacy of the risk and the gravity of the consequences” as the legal annexe to the police riots report phrases it.
All of this connects in my mind with the talk that Helena Kennedy delivered at Cardiff University last month, in which she spoke articulately and without sensationalism about the gradual erosion of democracy in our society and the shadowy forces that continue to underpin politics in the UK.
But none of this should come as any surprise. Needless to say the British government has extensive practice at shooting its own citizens. We executed 306 ‘cowards’ in World War One, shot 13 in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and if I had time and was not about to visit Grandpa I’m sure I could furnish a much fuller list, so the odd ‘demonstrator’ (or striker) isn’t going to count for much. Though it does raise the question of how precisely police are going to identify and isolate a single dangerous individual in a crowd of demonstrators and ‘neutralise’ him when, on current form they cannot identify and isolate a single ‘terrorist suspect’ correctly, as evidenced by the unlawful killing (shamefully recorded as an ‘open verdict’) in 2005 of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.
Again, Clarkson provides rather a good spokesperson for the Big Society espoused by the Old Etonians in charge of us now. A man-child, who, along with his two sidekicks, like to strike a quasi-macho front as they engage in feats of motorised derring-do (how close we came to death on that escapade, chaps) while remaining a reactionary in the traditional mould, one of whose defining characteristics is the notion (shared by the worst aspect of the ruling classes, along with venture capitalists and psychopaths) that a chap should be allowed to do what he wants, and anyone who decides to stop him is a sissy. How Big is that?
Clarkson is an obnoxious boor, but the butt of my greatest loathing remains, and will remain, George Osborne. Having been forced to attend an English Public School in my early teens, I know this kind of fuckwit very well. I carry an indelible memory of the type around with me, which reminds me of everything I most despise about Britain; its odious class system, its hideous hierarchies, its smarmy and pervasive xenophobia and, clambering onto its upper crusts, phalanxes of snooty locker-room bully-boys with daddies in the city. Osborne’s disdainful behaviour – surely indicative of the kind of government he stands for, and indeed the kind of social attitudes which the electorate sanctioned, more or less, in last year’s elections – is perhaps best encapsulated by this story, written by Candida Jones and published in The Guardian newspaper – not, incidentally my favourite read – which describes Osborne’s behaviour on holiday in Corfu in the summer of 2008, when the Tories were still in opposition:
How George Osborne ruined my day at the beach in Corfu
It was mid-afternoon on August 14 and we were on Kalamaki beach – a glorious bay on the north-east coast of Corfu where the intensely blue sea was so still it resembled oil rather than water. Barely a wave lapped the shore as I relaxed with my husband, brother and children. There were families throwing balls, people chatting in warm, shallow water and children with snorkels dragging small fishing nets. The scene was idyllic. The focus for most of those playing in the sea was a long, rickety, wooden pier. Children were jumping from it, dangling their feet in the water and playing tag. My three-year-old daughter was learning how to dive off the end when a motor boat appeared.
I was alarmed by the speed at which it approached. Parents stopped and watched, and I began to collect our little ones around me as I could sense danger. The boat kept coming and I began to worry. Surely no one would drive a boat through crowded water and, anyway, where was it going? Couldn’t those on board see that there was nowhere to moor as the pier was packed with children playing? Several parents, in several languages, complained loudly that this was an inappropriate place to bring a motorboat. It carried on without any apology from those on board and the bathers made way – the diving games stopped and children were hurriedly helped down from the pier and sent to the beach to play.
A very smartly dressed family disembarked and marched towards the shore. Leading the way was a man in blue shorts and white polo shirt, wearing deck shoes, which he clearly didn’t intend to get wet, followed by a couple of children, also dressed smartly and not for the beach, a woman, whom we assumed was their mother and was carrying a picnic basket, and a nanny, who brought up the rear and was carrying the bulk of the bags. I could tell immediately these people were English, by the way they were dressed and their seemingly superior manner. I felt embarrassed that a typically informal, relaxed and inclusive Greek afternoon was being so rudely interrupted by one small, well-turned-out, organised, English family.
I recognised George Osborne as he led the way. Shouts continued from the parents, which made the Osborne family hurry, but none of them looked back or exuded the air of bashful apology one would expect. Osborne, hearing the protests, simply said, addressing everyone, “It’s a pier, that’s what it’s for.” He said it loudly, angrily, without looking at any of those whose afternoon he had spoiled.
Of course he was right. It was a pier, and that is what they are for, but that day it was full of families having fun and the boat brought the fun to an end. But what galled people most – lots of us discussed it afterwards – was the way it had happened. No backwards glance, no apology, no hint of embarrassment. It wasn’t very Greek at all; indeed it was extremely English in that old imperial way. The Osbornes had to be somewhere, quickly. Perhaps Oleg Deripaska was waiting to talk about money?
I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).
But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.
Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.
Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay ‘On Pain’, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated
Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.
So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.
My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:
All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.
Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?
The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.
Blanco is renowned for his benevolent nature and willingness to engage in Good Works, especially the healthful encouragement of youth (or what employers insist on calling ‘community engagement’, or even worse, in the university sector ‘impact factors’ – I can barely believe I am saying this) so it will come as no surprise to learn that my visit to the Zapotlanejo High School was a resounding success.
Despite admitting to a certain nervousness in my last post, once the nettle was grasped – or the cactus, more appropriately – everything went swimmingly. First I had to meet the mayor of this small provincial town for handshakes and the obligatory photo session, and received a gift of a history book detailing the beginnings of the Mexican revolution – the war of independence against the Spanish – which was fomented in this region, we set off for the school, where, escorted by two stunningly elegant pupils garbed in regional costume, and to a deafening fanfare of trumpets, such as greets the toreador entering the bullring (I kid you not dear reader) I was introduced to my audience of 16-17 years olds..
The reality was far more pleasant than a corrida, and less bloody. After the usual embarrassing introduction, from the headmaster, I managed to blather on fitfully in Spanish for twenty minutes on the theme of ‘being a writer’ or ‘how I became a writer’, and read a couple of poems, which the English teacher, Carlos, delivered in translation. By which time I felt I’d said enough and opened it up to the floor, rather a dangerous move considering the reluctance of teenagers to be seen to respond positively under these strenuous circumstances. But they reacted marvellously, humouring me – or perhaps even taking pity – by bombarding me with civil, intelligent and even (from one gangster youth near the back) with considerable wit. The most astute question came from a young fellow in a hoodie who asked, more or less, ‘how do you know, when you get to the end of a page, that the words you have chosen are the right ones?’ Most of the kids laughed at him, but I thought it was rather perceptive, and said dammit, that’s what bothers me all the time, jolly good question my lad. So all the kids who had laughed were then booed by the kids who liked the hoodie kid. And so on. We all had a grand time. They had even made a Welsh flag especially for the occasion and some of my new fans posed with me for a picture afterwards.
My hosts insisted on taking me to a nearby Place of Historical Importance, where the first major battle of the war of independence took place, at Puente de Calderón. There, beneath the blazing Jalisco sun, I found out about the details of the conflict, explained to me by Carlos, and when I clambered through the scrub to take a picture of the bridge wondered if there were rattlesnakes – I was assured there were – and wondered yet again at the indefatigable capacity of our species to slaughter one another without respite. I also discovered a new addition to my collection of weird signs, which reads ‘Se prohibe tirar perros’, literally, ‘it is forbidden to throw dogs’, or less literally, to take them to the park and leave them there, a horribly cruel thing to do in any case, but one which encourages the formation of packs of feral dogs who then start to become a menace, as well as shitting everywhere, as Carlos explained. While there, we bumped into the local captain of police, a short but very well-built gentleman with many gold teeth. We fell into conversation and he explained to my hosts about a recent raid that he had led, and which had featured in the news. It involved an organised assault on a drug manufacturing laboratory and resulted in many arrests and a number of deaths. When they had finished, he told us, without any sense of false modesty or exaggeration, the ground outside the laboratory was carpeted with thousands of empty cartridges. He actually seemed a mellow-mannered, thoughtful fellow, but I wouldn’t want to get into a gunfight with him. ‘Mexico is a country of many faces’, said the history teacher, as we walked back to the car.
So, my respects to local culture completed, we set out to eat at a fabulous restaurant where great slabs of meat and half sheep were skewered and cooked around a blazing fire of oak. We ate and drank to the tuneful accompaniment of a mariachi band. Then it was all over and I had to return to Guadalajara to conduct Literary Affairs and to star in an event called La Mirada del Vagabundo or ‘The Gaze of the Vagabond’. It was only when the event had ended and people started to queue up to buy signed copies of said book that I realised I ought to have brought some with me. Oops.
Well, I finished The Kindly Ones on the way here, actually at a little eatery called One Flew South in Atlanta airport, the only place that wasn’t a McDonalds or a Dunkin’ Donuts. The ending was a bit of a let down: I won’t spoil it for you, but it is set in the Berlin zoo as the Russians finally take the city centre. The zoo has taken direct hits from Soviet artillery, all the animals are either wounded and bellowing or else roaming free, and Max, our narrator, gets himself into a bit of a pickle with the two rather odd Thompson and Thomson-style detectives who have been tracking him for half the book, on and off, for the alleged murder of his mother and step-father. Max conducts himself particularly badly, even by SS standards, but then he is a Lieutenant-Colonel by now, as well as quite barking. In fact his last memorable act – and this I must reveal, so stop here if you intend to read the book – is at a medal-giving ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, no doubt the last such ceremony the Führer officiated at. Max has been awarded other medals (he already has an iron cross first class for being bravely shot through the head at Stalingrad) but since he is one of the few senior officers not to have fled Berlin, they think he deserves another one:
As the Führer approached me – I was almost at the end of the line – my attention was caught by his nose. I had never noticed how broad and ill-proportioned this nose was. In profile, the little moustache was less distracting and the nose could be seen more clearly: it had a wide base and flat bridges, a little break in the bridge emphasised the tip; it was clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic. I don’t know why this detail fascinated me, but I found it almost scandalous. The Führer approached and I kept observing him. Then he was in front of me. I saw with surprise that his cap scarcely reached my eyes; and yet I am not tall. He muttered his compliment and groped for the medal. His foul, fetid breath overwhelmed me: it was too much to take. So I leaned forward and bit into his bulbous nose, drawing blood. Even today I would be unable to tell you why I did this: I just couldn’t restrain myself. The Führer let out a shrill cry and leaped back into Bormann’s arms. There was an instant when no one moved. Then several men lay into me.
The effect of this passage is shocking to the reader, in part because up to this point (we are on page 960) everything that has happened has been feasible, if not historically authenticated; Max’s experience of the massacre at Babi Yar, the battle of Stalingrad, the shenanigans among the leadership, the ostracism of Speer by elements of the SS because he wanted to deploy concentration camp inmates as armaments factory workers rather than killing the lot – most everything is the book, other than the character of Max himself, is historically based: and then this marvellous touch, with Max biting Hitler’s nose. I was so surprised I nearly fell off my chair – Demay (or was it Demaine or Deraine?) who was ‘looking after me today’ in One Flew South, was discreet enough not to ask why it took me two hours to eat a portion of sushi – and I truly thought this was an audacious move on the novelist’s part, to have his character bite Hitler’s nose. After all this tension, the massive build up of suffering and terror and slaughter, to have the whole thing brought into close-up: the suggestion that Hitler was far from a perfect example of the Aryan race he sought to perpetuate; that indeed his proboscis indicated Slavic, possibly even more degenerate racial roots, was to Max, ‘scandalous’, serves to explode the tension in a surprisingly effective way. “Trevor-Roper, I know, never breathed a word about this episode, nor has Bullock, nor any of the historians who have studied the Führer’s last days. Yet it did take place, I assure you.” I will not reveal how Max manages to get himself out of this final indiscretion, but it is quite reasonable that he does: and by this point anyway, you just want to get to the end.
Reading Jonathan Littell’s book, however, knowing how slow a reader I am, and the amount of time it has taken me while I might usefully have been employed reading other things has helped bring me to a decision: that for the next year I will only be reading short fiction and poetry. I don’t know if I can stick to it but we’ll see. If nothing else, I will acquire a new acquaintanceship with the short story, which will be fun, and certainly less exhausting.
But right now I must prepare some notes to deliver a talk to a hundred or so Mexican High School kids, on the theme of ‘How I became a writer’. Gulp. Why did I agree to this? I had the choice and could have said no. The truth is, I said it to accommodate the person who asked, at the time a distant and unknown Book Fair official. But what does it take to back out now? In future I think I will cultivate a Beckettian or Pynchonesque silence on matters of self-disclosure – not easy if one is the author of a ‘memoir’. Truly, why put oneself through this kind of thing? But then again, after The Kindly Ones, it’s bound to be a doddle.
To schoolchildren of my generation, Sir Francis Drake was a hero, the epitome of English sangfroid, insisting on finishing his game of bowls before dealing with the Spanish Armada as it sailed up the Channel. It didn’t happen quite like that, of course, but who cares. The sea captains who forged the first imprint of Empire under Elizabeth the First have gone down here as great patriots, but are known to children in schools throughout Iberia and Latin America simply as pirates. In fact I remember looking through the history homework of my friend Nelson Pereira’s younger sister Elsa, while staying at their house outside Lisbon in 1983 and being shocked to see Drake being vilified in categorical terms. I imagine he doesn’t get much of a press in Irish school history books either, as he was involved in a massacre of 600 people during the English enforced plantation of Ulster in 1575. But that is how it goes: history is an imprecise art, dependent entirely on the perspective of the historian. Rather like fiction, in fact.
While in Argentina last month, I got into a lengthy discussion about the pirate Drake, and buccaneers of his ilk, on discovering that Drake entered the River Plate on his travels, and, I was told, sailed up the Paraná. I said to my companions that in Britain we did not speak of Drake as a pirate at all, not by any means, and that the first time I had heard him referred to in those terms was reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Úrsula Iguarán’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove. The burns changed her into a useless wife for the rest of her days. She could only sit on one side, cushioned by pillows, and something strange must have happened to her way of walking, for she never walked again in public. She gave up all kinds of social activity, obsessed with the notion that her body gave off a singed odor. Dawn would find her in the courtyard, for she did not dare fall asleep lest she dream of the English and their ferocious attack dogs as they came through the windows of her bedroom to submit her to shameful tortures with their red-hot irons.”
The BBC history entry on Drake gives the bare outlines:
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon in around 1540 and went to sea at an early age. In 1567, Drake made one of the first English slaving voyages as part of a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins, bringing African slaves to work in the ‘New World’. All but two ships of the expedition were lost when attacked by a Spanish squadron. The Spanish became a lifelong enemy for Drake and they in turn considered him a pirate.
In 1570 and 1571, Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies. In 1572, he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against Spanish ports in the Caribbean. He saw the Pacific Ocean and captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish treasure and a reputation as a brilliant privateer. In 1577, Drake was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I to set off on an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the American Pacific coast. He sailed with five ships, but by the time he reached the Pacific Ocean in October 1578 only one was left, Drake’s flagship the Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind. To reach the Pacific, Drake became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan.
He travelled up the west coast of South America, plundering Spanish ports. He continued north, hoping to find a route across to the Atlantic, and sailed further up the west coast of America than any European. Unable to find a passage, he turned south and then in July 1579, west across the Pacific. His travels took him to the Moluccas, Celebes, Java and then round the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived back in England in September 1580 with a rich cargo of spices and Spanish treasure and the distinction of being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Seven months later, Elizabeth knighted him aboard the Golden Hind, to the annoyance of the king of Spain.
In 1585, Drake sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida where he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. On his return voyage, he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas, which was the first English colony in the New World. In 1587, war with Spain was imminent and Drake entered the port of Cadiz and destroyed 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the British. In 1588, he was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada. Drake’s last expedition, with John Hawkins, was to the West Indies. The Spanish were prepared for him this time, and the venture was a disaster.
Drake died on 28 January 1596 of dysentery off the coast of Portobelo, Panama.
Apparently, before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour, which reminds me of the death by suicide of Captain Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee (see post of 22 September).
He was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Divers continue to search for the coffin.
Last year I was looking at some of the lesser-known historical poems of the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925), Sandinista, theologian, rebel priest, and translator of Ezra Pound into Spanish. I was struck by the rather Poundian flavour of some of these, and particularly taken by the following poem, written in the voice of a Spanish sea captain and based on a true account, in which Drake comes across as quite an honourable fellow, in spite of his terrible reputation.
DRAKE IN THE SOUTH SEA
Realejo, 16th April 1579
For Rafael Heliodoro Valle
I set out from the port of Acapulco on the twenty-third of March
and steered a steady course until the fourth of April, a Saturday,
and half an hour before daybreak
we saw a ship draw alongside us
its sails and prow silver in the moonlight
and our helmsman shouted at them to make way
and they might as well have been sleeping, for they did not reply.
Another voice shouted over: FROM WHERE DOES YOUR SHIP SAIL?
and they answered, from Peru, and that it was the Miguel Angel
and then we heard trumpets and the firing of muskets
and they ordered me to board their boat
and I was taken to the Captain.
I found him pacing on the bridge
and I approached him and kissed his hands, and he said to me:
What gold or silver does your ship carry?
And I told him: None at all.
None, my lord, only my plates and cups.
After which he asked me if I knew the Viceroy,
and I told him that I did. And I asked the Captain
if he was truly Captain Drake,
and he said he was, the very same.
We stayed talking a long while, until it was time to eat
and he ordered me to sit at his side.
His plates and cups are silver, with golden borders,
adorned with his coat of arms.
He has many bottled perfumes and scented waters
which he says were given him by the Queen.
He always eats and drinks to the accompaniment of violins,
and takes with him painters who make pictures all along the coast.
He is a man of some twenty-four years, small, with a blonde beard,
He is a nephew of the pirate Juan Aquinas,
and he is one of the greatest sailors on the seas.
The following day, which was a Sunday, he dressed in great style,
And ordered his men to hoist banners
and pennants of many colours at the mastheads.
The bronze rings and chains and embellished handrails
and the lights of the quarterdeck
shone like gold.
The ship was a golden dragon among the dolphins.
And we went, with his page, to my ship, to see the coffers,
and he spent the whole day, until nightfall, inspecting my cargo.
What he took from me was not much,
a few baubles I owned,
and he gave me a cutlass and a small silver brazier for them
asking my forgiveness,
but that it was for his lady he had taken them,
and I was free to leave in the morning as soon as there was a breeze
and I thanked him for that,
and kissed his hands.
He carries in his galleon three thousand bars of silver
and three coffers filled with gold
and twelve great coffers of pieces of eight,
and he says they are heading for China
with navigation charts and a Chinese pilot they captured . . .
(Translation by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol. 46 No. 3, Winter 2010/11)
The essay, we are being told, is back. An editorial in The Guardian on 5 May celebrates the alleged event and announces a new specialist publisher, Notting Hill Editions, which has released a range of cloth-covered hardbacks, ranging from Samuel Rogers to Georges Perec. However, many of us never suspected that the essay had gone away. This discursive genre, in which the author is given space to explore a more or less impressionistic or apparently random cascade of ideas rather than provide a detached and critical analysis of a particular topic, has a considerable history, but can be traced – unlike any other literary genre – to a single individual, a minor French aristocrat of the sixteenth century named Michel de Montaigne (1533-92).
Sure, there had been comparable examples of introspective or speculative prose writing before him, notably by the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (1307-74) and, at a stretch, Machiavelli (1469-1527), but Montaigne was the first modern essayist in two very particular ways. He was the first to apply the word ‘essai’ from the French verb ‘essayer’, and from which the English assay – meaning an ‘attempt’ – was a simple step; and his unique contribution to world literature was that he made himself the subject of his own work: he was the first to bring the spotlight onto himself as the topic of his writing, or, as Aldous Huxley put it in the preface to his own collected essays, to deliver ‘fragments of reflective autobiography’ and to ‘look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description’. Nearly five hundred years on, we find that the genre that Montaigne began, of self-reflexive prose in which the thoughts and actions of an individual constitute the subject matter and determine the direction of the writing, marks out a lineage that leads directly to the contemporary infatuation with autobiographical writing; the glut of misery memoirs, ‘sick lit’, confessional and celebrity memoirs with which the publishing industry is obsessed, not to mention the contemporary trends of blogging, social networking and twittering. By no means should Montaigne be blamed for these terrible things, but we might consider that in some important ways he started it all.
Montaigne has thus become extremely interesting to publishers, and the two books I have before me reflect the wide appeal that this Renaissance gentleman has to a twenty-first century readership. Both books have long and unwieldy titles. But Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is very good indeed, while Saul Frampton’s When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me: Montaigne and being in touch with life, although not without virtues, is filled with unfortunate and confusing turns of phrase, as well as numerous errors of editing and proofreading, and falls far behind Bakewell in both content and prose style.
Montaigne has had a long and interesting relationship with posterity. While his works brought him instant fame in sixteenth-century France, and were translated into English shortly after the author’s death, he fell foul of the Catholic church on account of his libertarian attitudes and relaxed morality, upsetting major French philosophers of the seventeenth century such as Pascal and Descartes. His work was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1676, remaining banned for nearly two hundred years. Although the French libertins adopted him and he was praised by Voltaire (and plagiarised by Rousseau), it was not until Nietzsche that Montaigne found a true descendant, one who called him ‘this freest and mightiest of souls’ and who would write: ‘That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.’ Montaigne lived, says Bakewell, as Nietzsche would have liked to live, questioning everything and yet managing to live his own life in a way that held no regrets – ‘If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived’ is a favourite and enviable quotation. Everything, says Bakewell, that ‘most repelled Pascal about Montaigne – his bottomless doubt, his ‘sceptical ease’, his poise, his readiness to accept imperfection’ were precisely those things that appealed to Nietzsche and which impress Montaigne’s fans today. At the man’s centre lay a pervasive scepticism, allied to a warm and humane engagement with the day-to-day; a hatred of cruelty; a profound but unsentimental love of nature and of animals, and an irrepressible curiosity about other societies and their customs. Montaigne is also known as an epicurean and a stoic in the mould of Marcus Aurelius (to which, as both authors point out, he adhered less stringently as the years went by).
His brand of philosophy – preferring to offer details wrapped in anecdote rather than expounding abstractedly – has a distinctly un-French edge to it that has always been popular in Britain, and his fan base ranges from Thomas Browne to Virginia Woolf, who admired him above all for his insistence on perpetually observing his immediate environment, his emotions and his interactions with the world.
The influence that Montaigne may or may not have had on Shakespeare has generated a considerable amount of speculative scholarship, based largely on a speech of Gonzalo’s in Act Two of The Tempest, which repeats, almost verbatim, an extract from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’. Shakespeare almost certainly knew John Florio, Montaigne’s English translator, and Montaigne’s influence has not only been discerned on the soliloquies of Hamlet – which would suggest that Shakespeare had sight of Florio’s translation before publication – but with greater assurance in the general tendency of Shakespeare’s later work towards a reflexive mode centred on the ever-questioning interlocutor. The uncertain or bewildered protagonist, suffering (or flaunting) a surfeit of experiential anxiety, was an entirely new phenomenon in literature, and according to Bakewell locates Montaigne and Shakespeare as ‘the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.’
A further similarity between Montaigne and Shakespeare is what the critic Jonathan Dollimore has called ‘a form of self-consciousness which implies simultaneous awareness of experience and the experiencing self’ as well as in the kind of relativism, according to Richard Wilson, which arises in both writers ‘from their sensation of the contingency of beliefs’. This is encapsulated, in both men’s work, in their interiority. In Montaigne, it takes a pronounced, monological turn at times:
I turn my gaze inward. I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself. I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself.
And yet this is not solipsism – the state in which only the self exists or can be know – but something closer to Hamlet’s self-observation in the famous soliloquies. The image of Montaigne ‘rolling about in himself’ is nicely a propos, especially given his fondness for dogs (and indeed his love of animals of all kinds). Montaigne famously refers to his cat in one of his essays (and in the title of Frampton’s book), but his weakness in giving in to his dog’s playfulness earned him Pascal’s disdain:
I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.
Montaigne also displays an unusually compassionate rapport with others – an identification with otherness that extends not only to the Protestant ‘enemy’ within sixteenth-century France (for which he was rebuked and mistrusted by fellow-Catholics during the long period of civil conflict through which he lived) but also to other human tribes. He was struck by the beliefs of the Brazilian Indians whom he encountered at the king’s court in Rouen, who ‘spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep.’ Furthermore, beyond his interest in cats and dogs, there is an almost pagan feel for, or identification with the natural world and animal life, something which provides Bakewell with one of her most interesting asides. While discussing Montaigne’s influence on Virginia Woolf, and both writers’ insistence on ‘paying attention’ in a way that eschews habitual modes of perception and categorisation, she cites Woolf’s diary of 1919:
I remember lying on the side of a hollow, waiting for L[eonard] to come & mushroom, & seeing a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly ‘This is Earth Life.’ I seemed to see how earthy it all was, & I myself an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.
Bakewell observes that this ‘eerie, almost hallucinatory moment’ enabled Woolf to see herself as part of a continuum, as essentially nature-bound – this is Earth Life – in a way that would not be remotely possible to an observer whose eyes were ‘dulled by habit’. The overcoming of habitual responses lies at the heart of Montaigne’s challenge. ‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. ‘Watching them watch the French’ says Bakewell, ‘was an awakening, like Virginia Woolf’s on the hillside’.
Bakewell’s interpolation of the life story with aperçus of the kind with Woolf, and elsewhere with Nietzsche, adds considerably to the weave and texture of her account. I finished her book feeling as though I had thoroughly shared in a deeper understanding of Montaigne’s work. Hers is a rare achievement. It is a shame then that I cannot similarly compliment Frampton’s book. An example of their distinct approach to subject matter might be illustrative.
All commentators are agreed that Montaigne’s awakening as a writer came about through his friendship with a colleague and fellow counsellor in the Bordeaux parliament, Etienne de La Boétie. The two men were inseparable friends for four years, and then La Boétie died. Montaigne’s grief was intense and long-lasting, and he would write of their friendship: ‘If pressed to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed, except by saying: because it was him; because it was me.’ The line is a unique and moving testimony to friendship. But while Bakewell is content to regard La Boétie as Montaigne’s ‘literary guardian angel’, looking over his shoulder during the composition of the essays, Frampton tediously – and without any evidence – insists on the possibility of a sexual relationship between the men. Not that it matters, of course: but really, why should we care? Why can’t we simply accept that this is at least a possibility, rather than having to indulge this prurient and weary conjecture that amounts to little more than anachronistic gossip-mongering?
But this, alas, is only one of Frampton’s failings: on page 29 we learn that the town of Agen is to the south-west of Bordeaux (placing it firmly in the Bay of Biscay), but on the next page it has moved (correctly) to the south-east of Bordeaux; on page 33 a painting is being described in which ‘One of [the men] is dressed as a Roman solder (sic), the other wearing the gown of a dying man.’ What, one wonders, is ‘the gown of a dying man?’ Must one know that one is dying before wearing such a garment? Or does the wearing of such a gown somehow condemn one? And there is more: discussing how plague ravaged the countryside in the 1580s, we are suddenly and randomly informed about an alleged event that took place at the opposite end of France: ‘At Ales near Lille in 1580, a young man called Jehan le Porcq died of a contagious illness, spending his final days in a shed at the bottom of his father’s garden.’ And on page 83 we learn that ‘a fog descended over northern Europe… It covered the Rhine… scaled the high walls of Oxford and surrounded Aristotle.’ There is far too much of this kind of nonsense. Moreover, the text is littered with failures of meaning, failure of tense agreement, errors of punctuation, and missing words. Frampton must take a large chunk of the blame, but surely Faber and Faber employ editors and proofreaders?
We should therefore be doubly grateful that Bakewell’s book provides an articulate and sympathetic introduction to the man and his work; but for anyone seriously wishing to make the acquaintance of a writer renowned for his self questioning rebuke ‘What do I know?’ – pre-empting postmodernity’s chronic self-doubt, but with a leavening of subtle humour, even at times hilarity – the Essays are a delight in store.
There’s no point in being sentimental about these things, I realize. Music that, when it first appears, seems to say something new, gets murdered with repetition, besides being absorbed into the great maw of consumer culture. I remember a coach journey from Athens to London, back in the seventies, when Neil Young’s album Harvest, was played on loop, continuously, along with The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. I never cared for Simon and Garfunkel, and my dislike turned to a raging phobia during the course of that journey, but I couldn’t listen to Neil Young for at least a decade afterwards either.
So on the related theme of yesterday’s post – erstwhile rebels being turned into toothless icons – I went to see the house where Che Guevara was born, here in Rosario, and the building now houses the offices of MAPFRE, a Spanish-owned insurance and finance group. I have a particularly strained relationship with insurance companies, and I am sure Che’s admiration for them would have exceeded my own. Opposite the building, a rather run-down hostel is named after him.
Che was not really from Rosario, he was just born here, by accident, before the family moved to Cordoba, where he grew up. But the city claims him as its son as it is good for tourism and the building where he was allegedly born has been declared a national treasure or some similar term. In fact he was born in a local hospital and only spent a few weeks in this rather luxurious building (both his parents were members of the Argentine aristocracy, and they inherited considerable wealth). Moreover Che’s parents falsified the date of his birth from May to June 1928, as his mother was pregnant when she married Che’s father, and the false birth date looked a little more respectable. The fruit of pre-marital passion was poorly regarded in those times, at least among the social class that Che’s parents inhabited.
In his teens – despite his severe asthma, which he always stoically resisted – and as a student of medicine in Buenos Aires, Che became a keen rugby player, a sport very much associated with the Porteño upper classes.
Che’s social conscience was awakened by his reading of Marx and by travelling. He set out on long excursions, first by bicycle, later by motorbike – as shown in the film The Motorcyle Diaries – driven by an insatiable curiosity about the way that others lived.
The Spanish Wikipedia entry on Che is rather good, the English one less informative, but still interesting.
Rosario has a reputation for a kind of good-natured bohemianism (is that a word?). I find it relaxed and friendly, the kind of place a person ends up without thinking about it too much, and forgets to leave. There are too many places like this. However, wandering around the shops, looking for gifts, is a thankless task: everything is Made in China or Indonesia, and I could be in Cardiff or Stockholm or Cape Town for the variety of consumer goods available. Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, leads us back to the question of a global village, and all the bullshit associated with being a consumer in the 21st century. Che would be disgusted, I guess, but as we all know, capitalism is the perfect system.
No sooner had I finished writing yesterday’s blog, than I walked into the hotel dining room (earlier than usual, as I had planned an excursion) and the first person I see is Coetzee himself, sitting in the corner with his back to the wall, dressed in jeans and one of those flak-jacket things, reading the newspaper.
I immediately felt as though I had intruded (which in a sense I just had, by writing about him) although there were two or three other early risers taking breakfast. I sat down a couple of tables away and observed him, discreetly, like a spy. He licked his finger, delicately, cat-like, and slowly turned the page of his paper. I resisted the temptation to go over and tell him that the Springboks were jammy bastards beating us by just one point last week. In fact I behaved with decorum, as though he were not there.
And this morning I am off to Uruguay for a couple of days.
The high spots of my stay in Buenos Aires? I would go for the concert/interview in the Ateneo bookshop last Friday given by the singer Barbie Martinéz, accompanied by (although this hardly does her playing justice) Paula Shocrón.
Between songs, Barbie was interviewed by Jorge Fondebrider with his inimitable mix of wit and candour. I recorded a couple of their songs, but the sound quality really does not do them justice, so I would recommend instead that you listen to their CDs. Barbie has only one so far, Swing, and a second forthcoming. Paula Shocrón has several CDs out; solo, with a trio and with a big band.
The other most enjoyable event was a trip up the Paraná delta yesterday on a river boat. This web of riverways and estuaries is the graveyard of centuries’ worth of shipwrecks and abandoned dreams. As late as the 1870s it was the haunt of pirates, many of them women. Setting out from Tigre, the trip took around three hours and we passed dozens of islands, the ones nearer Tigre were quite densely populated, but further out, and across the Paraná itself, the island homes became more and more eccentric and isolated. It was like entering a lost and enchanted world, and I would like to find out more about it. Inés Garland’s novel Piedra, papel o tijera might be a good place to start. The island people are almost entirely dependent on the delivery of goods by boat, and the children go to an island school. They have a reputation for a kind of wistful lethargy, a condition known locally as ‘Mal del sauce’ or ‘weeping willow sickness’ (willows are abundant along the riverbanks). It is the kind of condition that afflicts a person who spends too many hours gazing at the slow passage of water.
Finally my visit to the Villa Miseria at Barrancas 21/24 (see post of 14th September) made a lasting, if very different impression on me. So much so that I wrote a poem about it, in a kind of Spanglish, which I read at the Bitácora, the closing forum of the festival on Sunday evening, before Coetzee’s reading.
Those who have read The Vagabond’s Breakfast will know that my last visit to Buenos Aires was rather fraught, to say the least. It was wonderful to spend some time in good company and find out more about this fabulous city, and I am grateful to my hosts, especially Jorge Fondebrider, Pablo Braun, Inés Garland and Jorge Aulicino for providing the opportunity to replace earlier memories with ones of an altogether more helpful and agreeable kind.
A walk down to the Museo de Bellas Artes here in Buenos Aires and a discovery that leaves a deep mark of weirdness on the Blanco brain.
Cándido Lopez (1840-1902) was an Argentinian painter who took part in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) and lost his right arm in the conflict. Although right-handed, he taught himself to paint with his left hand and produced a number of sprawling battle scenes, developing a naïf style that pre-empts L.S. Lowry, many of his pictures depicting the regimented lines of troops preparing for battle, and the horrific aftermath of the conflict, bloody corpses littering wide and desolate spaces.
The War of the Triple Alliance pitched Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay. Something of an uneven contest, you might think, although at the start of the war Paraguay actually had a larger army than the other three put together. It was the bloodiest of all the bloody wars to afflict South America in the nineteenth century and when it was over Paraguay was utterly devastated. Some estimates calculate that Paraguayan losses alone, due to the conflict and disease were as high as 1.2 million (90% of its prewar population) though a more conservative estimate suggests a mere two thirds of the male population – a gender imbalance that had a significant impact on the country’s socio-political development.
The causes of the war are still disputed by historians but their dictator at the time, one Francisco Solano López, had aggressive and expansionist ideas, and one of the main arguments is that the British encouraged him to develop an Atlantic coastline in order to supply their Empire with cotton, which was in high demand due to the American Civil War. A not unfamiliar story.
Within weeks of publication Patrick McGuinness’s debut novel, The Last Hundred Days found itself on the Man Booker long list, and deservedly so, although it failed to make the shortlist on the 5th September. Whatever. Set in Bucharest, the novel reawakens in the reader that state of stunned disbelief in the autumn of 1989 as successive Soviet bloc countries underwent bloodless revolutions, until there was only Romania there at the end of the queue, making a bloody hash of it. The novel describes the despicable oppression and deprivation of the Romanian people in the build-up to that coup, and paints a sordid picture of the corruption and hypocrisy of their rulers.
At the same time it feels oddly contemporary, especially in the way that a grasping elite escape the consequences of their actions and rise above the chaos that they perpetrate. Not that the Ceausescu’s themselves did, of course, their messy trial and execution can still be viewed on youtube, and it provides a resonant coda to the reading of this novel.
The opening chapter is superb, its discourse on the state of boredom offering a kind of conceptual counterpoint to the unfurling narrative, with its cast of impressively drawn characters, that is almost Tolstoyan in scope: “In the West we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear. Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.” McGuinness is an accomplished poet and writes with superb clarity. The novel is littered with aperçus of a brilliance that has the reader reaching for a pencil. Here is Bucharest: “a heat-beaten brutalist maze whose walls and towers melted like sugar, and where the roots of trees erupted through the pavements.” And here is the unctuous consular attaché Wintersmith (straight out of Greene-land) and the British expat community, “where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably”; here is the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself.” And here is the grim Stoicu, interior minister and Ceausescu sidekick, with the “eyes of a man who sought in those around him the lowest motivation and always found it.”
I was fascinated to learn that Ceausescu was so paranoid that he would duplicate, no, triplicate his daily motorcade through Bucharest with simultaneous decoy performances in other parts of the city: “sirens, cars, Ceausescu’s motorcade – the real one and its decoys hurtling through Europe’s saddest dictatorship. One of the cars was for the Ceausescu’s dog, and he even had two doggy decoys, a punchline to a joke no one could any longer bear to tell about a world whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity.”
McGuinness was himself in Bucharest just prior to the fall of the regime, and his observations appear to have the scent of authenticity. This is a novel that rages and flows by turn, but rarely disappoints, tugging caustically towards its inevitable denouement.
A version of this review appeared in The Independent on 8 September 2011.
The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.
So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.
We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.
Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).
It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.
I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?
Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.